Latest Writing Report
by Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review, July 2005
The Governor of Arkansas, the former Governor of West Virginia and the President of New School University have just reported that state employees need a lot of remedial work on their writing. In 2004, the College Board’s National Commission on Writing in the Schools and the Business Roundtable reported that Roundtable companies were spending more than $3 billion each year on remedial writing instruction for their salaried and hourly employees.
The latest report recommends more money for the National Writing Project, whose Director, Richard Sterling, is on the National Commission Board and a principal consultant, and says the biggest boost to writing has come from the new SAT writing test, a 25-minute response to a prompt, for which tens of thousands of students prep by writing a generic essay in advance, and the writing for which is scored at the rate of 30 tests an hour, while the accuracy of any facts is explicitly to be unquestioned in the grading.
For many years, creative writing has been the dominant genre at the high school level, and almost every high school has a literary journal for the photos, poems and personal reflections of student authors. In public high school English classes, the main academic writing task has been the fiveparagraph essay.
It now seems fairly clear that writing about one’s feelings and relationships, or offering one’s opinions on a current topic in five paragraphs, have not done the job of preparing students either for college, where up to 65% of two-year college students are in remedial classes and up to 34% of four-year college students are in remedial classes, or for the workplace, where we now know a great deal of money is being spent to make up for what students have not been taught.
If research term papers are required in colleges, and good-sized reports in companies and in the public sector, it seems fairly simple to assume that the best preparation at the high school level for these tasks would be to have students write a research paper or two and prepare a major report or two. Yet a study done for The Concord Review in 2002 found that while 95% of high school teachers thought research papers were important or very important, 81% never assign a 20-page paper and 62% never assign a 15-page paper of the sort students may be asked for in college. Teachers mostly said they didn’t have the time it took to read and grade such papers. At Boston Latin School, the oldest public school and Boston’s premier exam school, they haven’t assigned the “traditional history term paper” for more than a decade.
It can be concluded that the reason employees and college students can’t write very well is because they haven’t been asked to learn to do it in school. The National Commission recommends they give more money to the National Writing Project—but their main focus is on helping teachers feel more comfortable writing about themselves—and that more credit be given to the new SAT writing test, which is almost as superficial a writing exercise as a diary entry.
In the last 18 years, The Concord Review has published 693 exemplary history research papers by high school students from 34 countries. They average 5,500 words, but many are longer. Some come from private school students, some from public school students who have done an independent study for their paper, as many do for the Intel Science Talent Search, and some from public schools where the teachers work themselves above and beyond what the contract asks for.
To those who say that the research papers we publish are beyond most students, I would say you don’t know what students’ limits are until you have asked them to try, but I do have another suggestion, to counter the National Writing Project’s solipsistic approach and the College Board’s 25-minute spontaneous-writing-sample test.
If schools want to improve students’ ability to do the sort of writing that they will need in college and at work, they should undertake our Page Per Year Plan. This would assign a one-page paper to each first grader, to write about something other than themselves, and add a page each year, so that 6th graders would attempt a six-page research paper, and 10th graders a 10-page one, and so on, until every single 12th-grader could come to know more about her subject than anyone else in her class by writing a 12 page research paper. This may not seem to be a radical suggestion, but it is far beyond the five-paragraph essay to which so many of our high school students are now restricted. This plan would, of course, not prevent a diligent student of history from spending as much time on a history paper as some students already spend on their projects for the Intel Science Talent Search, but it would ensure that every student headed for college would not have to hang on to their few peers who had done research papers in high school to find out how to do one for the first time, as so many now do.
We have allowed our fascination with creative and personal writing, and with little opinion pieces on contemporary issues, to lead us to deprive our students of basic experience with serious academic expository writing, and more of the same will not make up the deficit. Students can read nonfiction books all the way through, and write long solid research papers, but too many have up to now been prevented from doing so, by the efforts of the schools, the College Board, the National Writing Project and now, it seems, the National Commission on Writing in the Schools as well.